Global Policy Forum

Democracy For All

The Montreal Gazette
April 23, 2001

Despite the television footage of cars being smashed, water cannons being fired and clouds of tear gas wafting through the air, the Quebec City summit must be judged a success. The occasional acts of violence and the strong police response to them were regrettable but in no way tarnished the summit's considerable accomplishments.

Yes, there was trouble along the security perimeter throughout the weekend, but that was to be expected. Clearly, there were groups bent on causing havoc at the summit. Peaceful protesters do not come armed with concrete chunks, ball bearings and Molotov cocktails. The police response, while too heavy on the use of tear gas, was, for the most part, restrained. Compared with what happened at the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle in 1999, police in Quebec City were well organized, calm and professional.

In the end, more than 400 people were arrested. Still, 95 per cent of the 20,000 protesters in attendance were well intentioned, peaceful and law-abiding. Given the avalanche of media coverage they received for the past week, they can't complaint that they didn't get their message across. The People's Summit was heavily covered by the media; it gave those opposing the Free Trade Area of the Americas ample opportunity to air their concerns.

Inside the conference hall, the ambitious plan of action released yesterday at the summit's conclusion marked an important step forward for hemispheric co-operation. It also showed that the 34 national leaders have been heeding the complaints and expectations of civil society. Their 44-page plan of action is chock full of measures to, for example, strengthen democratic institutions, promote press freedom, fight organized crime, empower local governments, respect core international labour standards, strengthen the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, protect the rights of migrant workers, promote judicial reform, strengthen the participation of civil society groups and encourage greater corporate responsibility.

Which of these ideas would the protesters find objectionable? Of course, it's also true that the summit declaration included a commitment to complete negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement of the America by the year 2005. The anti-capitalist crowd will take no comfort in that and will remain convinced that the FTAA is the root of all evil. But their utter refusal to even discuss the FTAA is both puzzling and self-defeating. The People's Summit categorically rejected the proposed trade deal before even seeing the draft text, describing it as "neo-liberal, racist and destructive of the environment."

That kind of extremist rhetoric will get them nowhere. Canada's trade minister Pierre Pettigrew was right when he said that the 2,300 delegates to the People's Summit are marginalizing themselves when they refuse to engage in the FTAA process. The protest movement is based on a fundamental fallacy: that leaders of the 34 nations are acting undemocratically. In fact, the summit leaders have pledged to admit only recognized democracies to their club. And opponents of the FTAA have every opportunity to organize political parties, convince the general public of their cause and defeat pro-FTAA governments at the ballot box. That's how democracy works. It's a lesson protesters have yet to learn.

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